London Marathon 2018 – the night before

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I’m stretched out on the sofa, my feet on Andy’s lap like they usually are, a glass of Sauvignon Blanc within reach of my left hand. We’ve had our thin crust pizza and salad for dinner, a pre-race routine of mine which Andy is happy to adopt for the night. Bedtime won’t be later than 8pm, but there’s no legislating for when I’ll actually get to sleep.

Having exchanged fitness for about a stone in weight, I’m not at my peak for a road marathon. Or any marathon. Or running at all. And the last week at work has included managing a broadcast rehearsal on top of a large scale office move, and consequently chronic pain that became so bad on Tuesday night I had to get a cab home from work because I couldn’t even walk to the station. So, there will be some management of expectations tomorrow.

Is that right though; is that the mindset to take in? Treat the race with respect, certainly, don’t take a finish for granted – but that’s not the same as preparing excuses. That paragraph up there, that’s a classic fear of failure. I take up to a month to write blogs because I’m afraid of putting something out that people will hate, or has mistakes, or is constructed poorly. I’m afraid of going into work some days because I still have no natural aptitude for my job, two and a half years in, and constantly fucking it up is kind of exhausting. I have to persuade myself to attend running sessions with my club because I don’t know if I can get to the end of a 6 mile run. I used to run the damn sessions.

I hadn’t been aware of how much this fear pervades my every decision until recently, but now every time I catch myself in a negative mindset I ask myself “Am I just afraid of failing?” and the answer is never “No, absolutely not.” I mean it’s not always a resounding yes either, but as long as it remains a possibility I’m not making the best of the opportunity I have.

That opportunity is a place in the London Marathon, one I almost didn’t get. I had wanted to run this race ever since I started running, and had applied for the ballot unsuccessfully year after year. I finally earned it with a Good for Age run in the 2015 Manchester Marathon, found out a week before London 2016 that the Manchester course had been incorrectly measured and believed I would lose my spot despite being basically on the start line. Happily, even the penalty applied to the qualifying threshold was within my now unofficial PB finish time and I had two years’ worth of entry to the race.

Running it in 2016, I was still relatively fit but very out of practice, and I was so nervous around the crowds that I didn’t pick up a single drink or gel on the whole course. It was miserable. I finished under 4 hrs, but I blew up at the end and nearly passed out at supper. Turns out, running a marathon on a warm day without calories or water is a fucking stupid idea. You’re welcome, anyone who thought they’d try that.

So my memory of London has so far been one of failure. I failed to get my target time, I failed to manage my fluids and energy levels, I failed to run hard and I failed to run for fun. Blah blah blah. Probably best not to bother again then eh? So when a freelance job opportunity with my favourite company came up and the build day was marathon day in 2017, I was almost relieved to be deferring my place for the following year.

That gave me enough time to recover, train properly, reassess. Wait, that’s the wrong order. Assessment: another GFA time might be on the cards – if you have jet packs on your heels. Recovery: ha ha. Train properly: time to pick up a book. And I did, and I stuck to it, right up until the last 4 weeks. I’ve learned what I’m capable of and it turns out that, in the cold light of day, I think I can comfortably do a 4hr20 run, and if I go out of my comfort zone I could even skirt around 4hrs. But I’ve also learned that being afraid to say those words out loud is only hampering my ability to try.

What I know I can do though, absolutely KNOW for certain, is that I can enjoy it if I want to, and that enjoyment doesn’t need to be linked to (or totally divorced from) my expectations. I mean that, I need to accept failure as a possibility, but not be so obsessed with avoiding it that I miss the chance to do something great. Excuses are just another mechanism for dealing with this fear; I have to stop handicapping myself. So before I reach the Blue Start tomorrow, lose my nerve and simultaneously decide I’ll barely finish but also go off at 6:30 minute miles, I’m going to record the things I am thankful for:

  1. My place in the race. I worked really hard for it, and it wasn’t a fluke. And it doesn’t mean that I’m any less deserving of it now, even though I’m three years older and half an hour slower than I used to be. This is something I wanted to do for years and in honour of the many versions of me that couldn’t get in, not to mention the countless others still yet to get their ballot place, I’m going to bloody well have fun.
  2. The sun and the heat. This winter seemed interminable and penetrating. I’m damned if I’m going to complain about nice dry heat now. Running in the heat was a bit of a monkey on my back but I’ve embraced it and now, frankly, I sort of love it. Running in any extreme is fun actually.
  3. My Andrew W.K. playlist. It got me through Manchester. Pure, heart-busting joy.
  4. My health. Dammit, I can run. There are days when I am in so much pain that I can barely see, and there are days when I feel like my limbs are made of stardust. For those days, for those handful of moments, it’s all worth it.
  5. My job. There’s no getting around the fact that it is stressful and physically taxing, but it pays my bills and my entry fees to races, so to be ungrateful for it would be hypocritical. I have a wonderful boss and an exceptionally talented team, and no-one has ever failed to be impressed when I tell them what I do.
  6. My friends and family. The people who we thought would never dream of coming all the way to Northern Cyprus to be at our wedding. The people who probably would have joined us at the drop of a hat, if only we hadn’t underestimated the table plan. The people who will instead (or as well as) celebrate sat at a rickety little table in Shepherds Bush with us, who will share a Thai food platter and a pint of Pride. The people who do every week. The people who will wait in the sun for hours tomorrow for the three second view of me passing.
  7. Me.

Fellow marathoners – what are you thankful for? What will you take with you to tomorrow’s race?

Whatever it is, don’t let it be fear.

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Pilgrims Challenge 2018

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Hello, old friend.

When I finished the North Downs Way 50 – just – back in May of last year, I swore the whole way round that I was DONE with the much-loved national trail which had been the backdrop for much of my trail running career. I’ve run this route so many times, in so many circumstances, and although I’d had my fair share of happy memories it had chewed me up so much that a return would be tantamount to masochism.

As soon as I finished my volunteering stint on Druids at the end of November, the first thing I did was sign up for Pilgrims again. Glutton for punishment.

I first ran the Pilgrims Challenge in 2015 at the start of a year that became my most prolific and most successful so far. When I took to the start line of the 2-day, 66 mile event run by Extreme Energy it was the first time I’d run two back to back marathons, and the thing I was most worried about was how the overnight camping no-home-comforts bit would work. As it turned out, thanks to the incredible support of Neil Thubron and his team, I needn’t have given it a thought. Although I have learned the value of taking a couple of clip hangers for drying out a race vest overnight and a bundle of newspaper for stuffing shoes.

This time all I wanted to do was finish, however slowly. And I knew it would be slow. I believed in my adjusted expectations instead of still vaguely hoping a sub-6 hour finish could be on the cards. And thank goodness I did, because nothing about the terrain and conditions suggested optimism.

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My trouble with the North Downs Way, I realise, is that it’s just too familiar – it beats me because it knows me so well. It knows how to lure me into a false sense of security, how to make me believe that I can push through a runnable section and straightaway knock me down, how to use reverse psychology to its most brutal effect by tempting and then taunting me. I’ve mentioned before that this route – which I know so well, have run so many times – seems to distort and rearrange itself when I’m racing. Whole tracks pop up between hills that before I could have sworn were back to back.

And the worst parts of it aren’t the hills at all. You’d be surprised how much of the trail has little or no elevation change; the demon of it is that the ground yields so easily it’s like running through sand – well, sometimes it actually IS sand. So you beat yourself up for not being able to run the “fast” bits, and wear yourself out before the real test begins. All this is what makes it surprisingly effective training for the Marathon des Sables, which is exactly what many of the runners this weekend were preparing for.

My aim really was just to finish it – I’m not humblebragging here, genuinely I’d have been happy to get to the end, given how much fitness I’ve lost. I had taken for granted my ability to grind through these distances, having been successful at it in the past, that I’d actually forgotten how to suck it up and get to the end on the tougher races. And I’d started a worrying trend of DNFs that were close to outweighing the Fs. So, get to the end, by any means necessary. There would be a lot of hiking.

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I nabbed a fairly jammy parking spot close to race HQ (tent), swapped my bag for a number and a timing tag, and huddled up with the second wave of starters. It was so cold – find me a synonym for cold, somebody, that word is gonna get WORN OUT – that RD Neil decided to hold our briefing inside the tent, having braved the bitter chill on the first wave and nearly lost his loudhailer. There was a wonderful little touch when the owner of the farm we were on blew the horn to start the race then joined us as far as the first checkpoint; just before we started he told us how, nine years ago and no kind of runner, he watched the Pilgrims competitors leave the start line for the very first time and was motivated to give this running lark a go himself.

Normally I’m quite sociable on races like this, but I knew this weekend I could be out there on my own for a very long time; this would be more meditative than conversational. I loaded up the iPod shuffle with hours and hours of podcasts – I’m a bit obsessed with Astonishing Legends at the moment – and zoned out. That’s not to say I was planning to shut myself off from the experience; I just planned to be cautious, considering how naively I’ve been diving into races recently without any real respect for the challenge. Never take a race for granted.

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This last year has been like learning how to run all over again. This race was no different. I felt comfortable through the first checkpoint nearly 9 miles in, having passed the familiar ground of Guildford and the bridge over the River Wey (where on Centurion races you will usually find Allan and his bacon butty barge), but I’d be taking it really easy. It was a long old stretch to the next checkpoint at 19 miles which included the climb to St Martha’s Church and the sandy downhill after it, but as usual it was a glorious opportunity for aeroplane arms. I wasn’t pushing the pace, but I was still conscious of it, running on my own and in my own head for a change. Deja vu – this is almost exactly the runner I was when I attempted this race the first time three years ago, too nervous to engage with anyone else. Well, maybe two of her.

By the time I got to Denbies, around 20 miles, I was feeling perfectly capable of forward momentum but there wasn’t any kind of pace in my legs. That’s fine, I thought, just keep one foot in front of the other. The downhill towards the dual carriageway is usually where I open up a bit and scoot about like a kid, but this time I was on a leisurely old lady jog at best. Nonetheless with the eerie canopy of evergreen trees, the biting chill of the clear winter weather and the soundtrack of a horror story podcast, this leg of the journey scored 10/10 for atmosphere. In fact it came as a bit of a shock to pop out onto the relative banality of the dual carriageway before Box Hill.

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Being close to freezing for most of the previous week (month) there hadn’t been much rainfall, but I still figured they wouldn’t risk sending us across the Stepping Stones. Those things are my arch-nemesis, regardless of the season. I don’t care how deep the river is or how safe they are to stand on, I still get knocked sideways with vertigo when I step on them. But no – to my horror, I watched as the snake of runners in front of me skipped deftly across them instead of diverting left to the stone bridge. It took me a good five minutes to cross – first letting the people directly behind me pass first, knowing they wouldn’t want to be held up, then giving myself a ten count and a pep talk to jump onto each one, terrified that my feet would slip on take off or landing and I’d end up a pile of bones on the riverbed. Thankfully the runners around me were very sympathetic – outwardly at least – and I got across without incident. Of course, if I’d bothered checking the route card in advance I’d have known that we were actively requested not to use them anyway. Ahem.

As unlikely as it sounds, Box Hill is probably my favourite bit. Sure it’s slow, but it does at least give my muscles a chance to swap shifts and even that change of pace can make you feel fresh again – for a few steps anyway. By this point though I was sliding beyond 7 hour finishing pace and only getting slower; not that it mattered in the long run, but I started to pile up on food to prepare myself for the energy needed just to stay warm out there. That turned out to be one small win; I never exerted myself enough to be unable to eat, which made me realise just how low that threshold really is for me. Having spent so long wondering why I struggle with food, the penny finally dropped: the reason I’m no good at it is that I’ve not been training properly for it. And it turns out, when you eat you can run for longer…

Drifting away with the fourth episode of my podcast, I pretty much trotted through the rest of the NDW section, even Colley Hill and Reigate Hill which normally reduce me to swears and tears. And again, I noticed how much easier they felt when I wasn’t running on a deficit. When I thought about it afterwards, I realised that I’d been confusing my perceived effort with my perceived pace for years. Every time I’ve done this section I’ve assumed that slowing down “a bit” would be enough to cope – certainly on previous runs I’ve been more concerned with time than I was today – but this was the first time I’d slowed enough to see a real difference in my heart rate and it shocked me just how slow I had to go to bring it down. But it also shocked me to see how much better I felt when it was under a steady limit. I’m sure if I can bring this threshold up a bit I can do that hill – that series of three hills, actually – without being overcome by nausea, either through effort or inability to eat. Have my past mistakes really been as simple as that?

And having reached the fort, although I was puttering along like a steamboat, I was still moving consistently. My Strava data won’t show that since the data seems to have gone a bit haywire, but my watch readout shows an average pace of 14:42 minutes per mile, which is much better than I could have hoped for. I certainly didn’t have any bursts of speed to call on, but by the same token I wasn’t really getting out of shape. I negotiated the instructions for the diversion to our overnight stopoff, skipped across the timing mat, and that was that.

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My “efforts” that day had bagged me just over  seven and a half hour finish – an hour slower than the first year and with one less mile to cover thanks to a course change. It was comparatively slow, but since all I had to do was get to the end I managed that with effort to spare. No massage needed, a cursory bit of stretching, the main thing I had to concentrate on was warming up. I got into my duck onesie – something I’d often considered bringing but never had the courage to until Druids last year – and curled up with my podcasts.

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The next day my legs were… still fine. Still absolutely fine. I’d had a tiny bit of cramp overnight where my lackadaisical stretching routine had missed a spot, but other than that I could have believed we were still on day 1. So another thing to be thankful for – I might not be winning any prizes for speed at the moment, but I’m using the resources I have and right now that’s experience and momentum. I don’t think it’s complacent to readjust expectations and goals as long as you recognise it works both ways. But I still had another 32 miles to go, and I still didn’t want to take anything for granted.

The previous day I’d got through a series of episodes about Black Eyed Kids – a supernatural phenomenon about hollow eyed children who demand help from strangers and curse people who give in – so naturally I was seeing them in every tree knot and dark patch of woodland. I decided to go for some more historical than ethereal and started a series on the Nazi Bell, an alleged superweapon developed during WWII that could have changed the course of European history. Being confident in the route – because that’s never stitched me up before – I let myself drift off while I put my feet back on autopilot.

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The weather on the second day was colder but clearer, and there were breaks in the clouds for the sun to shine through every now and again. The engine was as sturdy as the day before, if a little lower on power. That didn’t matter – all it had to do was last the distance. Touch wood I still hadn’t had any real injuries or even niggles to worry about or nutrition to consider. In fact I still planned to drive home from Farnham, so there was no room for heroics.

That day was about juggling three things – my ability to use the foot pedals on the way home, my ability to stay warm enough to get there, and my ability to stay conscious. Only by keeping a light touch on the tiller would I keep all three in balance – trying too hard to manage one would only jeopardise the others. If I hurried too much to get out of the cold I would either risk a tumble or shut down my digestive system, and subsequently everything else. If I stopped to eat too much I’d take vital blood flow away from my muscles. And if I went too slow and too gingerly I’d likely freeze to death out there. Somehow, keeping all these things in mind kept me going.

It was a slow day though, for sure. Not leisurely, just slow. It wasn’t helped by the fact that my arrogance got the better of me once more and I took a wrong turning at Newlands Corner, an area I’ve been to more than any other on the NDW, forcing me to double back in the claggiest and heaviest mud on the whole route. As the day wore on I became more and more alone, watching first the elites pass me, then all the one dayers, then most of my start group. I think there might even have been a walker or two overtaking me by the end. But, I remembered, my ego wasn’t going to get me home today. My feet were, and they would do it on their own terms.

As the farm at Farnham drew into sight I called on my sprint finish… and found it wasn’t there. In fact, having hiked more than half the day I still had to walk quite a bit of the last 100 metres. But neither that nor the total absence of other people could stop me from belting over the line. I must have been one of the last people home, but I’ve rarely been happier to finish a race. Eight hours, forty seven minutes and change – nearly two hours slower than 2015.

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What I took away from this race though wasn’t a result but a fresh start, a new perspective. After spending the last three years trying to help new runners I realised I was one of them again. There’s no point comparing myself to the person who finished 16 marathons or ultras in a year, the person who ran a 3:41 marathon or the person who came third in her first ever 50. Right now, I’m a person who takes two weeks to recover from a late finish at work, who sleeps up to ten hours a day and still aches in every single muscle. That said, I’m also someone with experience of running ultras, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that low points never stay low, You always bounce back eventually.

You just have to believe that you can.

Con-what-now

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Every now and again I look back over my old posts and see if, with the benefit of hindsight, I spot any patterns or consequences that I hadn’t noticed at the time. Probably I account for half of my own hits doing this, but there you go.

In 2015 I ran every day of the year and also covered 16 marathons, finishing at least one every calendar month. It was my best running year in almost every respect. I got PBs in pretty much every distance which stand to this day, ran the highest number of miles with the least amount of injury or illness – seriously, I didn’t get a single cold that year – enjoyed the fastest recovery times I’ve ever had, and above all had the most fun. I didn’t think there was any discipline involved, really. And the only “plan” I had was to keep up the streak and keep enjoying myself.

A change in professional circumstances meant that I reluctantly quit the daily run streak, especially as it was getting harder and harder to fit it in. Within a couple of months a daily run streak had dwindled to barely three times a week to injury knocking me out for weeks at a time. My running career got 2016’d, in short. I’ve reflected on this many times to work out what went wrong, exactly. Was it quitting the run streak? Do I need to run a little bit every day just to keep up my fitness, not to mention my motivation? Was it coincidence; did I just happen to get injured after I quit the streak? Was it the delayed effects of a streak catching up with me six weeks later? I definitely didn’t want to believe that last one but I eventually devoted some time to finding precedents for this situation, and happily found none. In fact I found plenty of reports of run streakers out-running injury and illness for years. But could that simply have been confirmation bias?

So I tried to analyse each elements that changed for me at the turn of the year and work out which one was the culprit.

Work-life balance: New job, more erratic hours, more stressful and less time to run and alleviate that stress. Yes, definitely sounds like a prime suspect. There’s just something that niggles about this hypothesis though; increased stress can absolutely be to blame for illness and there’s no doubt that the injury started a downward spiral of “I’m injured so I can’t run, I can’t run so I’m miserable, I’m miserable so I overeat, now I’m too heavy to run…” But can being more stressed at work really have a direct link to the injury? I mean it was only a wee one; bog standard runner’s knee, sorted within a month and even then only because I was too stubborn to rest it. I can believe that there’s a chain reaction, but I think there’s a chain link missing.

Lack of fitness: Definitely another possibility. But you don’t lose fitness just like that; not in the timescale we’re talking. I didn’t lose a damn leg. And although it felt at the time like I was never going to run again, I was still managing a couple of easy runs a week and spent no more than a fortnight without running at all. Proportionally to my expectations of myself I wasn’t doing well, but I imagine that’s what most runners call their off-season. It should have been possible for me to regain it.

Lack of motivation: Honestly? Nope. I mean there were days I felt like being lazy or avoided a session and felt guilty about it afterwards, but I still missed running, I just couldn’t do as much as I wanted. I was miserable, but not unmotivated.

Overtraining: Yes, that was a thing. That was definitely a thing – in 2017. I’m talking about a year before. It could well be the root of the issues I had later, in that I pushed myself too hard to make up for missed runs, but when I quit the run streak I didn’t feel the slightest hint of what I now know to be classic OTS symptoms. I didn’t quit because I was exhausted, I quit because I thought I should while I was ahead.

And finally, the fringiest and most superstitious of reasons, 2016: Because everything that was cool died in 2016. I’m not seriously considering this as a genuine cause, but I’m leaving it there anyway because fuck 2016.

I’ve written about all these hypotheses at one point or another, but none of them have ticked all the boxes for me, none of them present as a wholly satisfactory explanation for my loss of form. And then I read a reply to a Facebook post on the Ultrarunning Community asking how long the longest run should be in preparation for a 100 mile race. The reply was written by Tracey Watson, as far as I know the only person to have done the Centurion Double Grand Slam in two consecutive years – or at all – which means officially finishing four 100 mile races and four 50 mile races in a single year, between April and November. Now if she’s not qualified to answer this question, who is?

Her answer? She never does longer than 30 miles on a training run, not even for the 100s; the 50 milers pretty much act as training for those anyway. The key to training, she said, was consistency.

That very obvious and often-cited piece of advice made something suddenly click for me. Not that I hadn’t heard it before, but I hadn’t really made the connection. The missing link in the chain, the one thing that could explain the difference between 2015 and 2016, that even contributed to the later onset of OTS, was consistency.

I looked again at 2015. Instead of seeing my daily run as a benefit in and of itself, perhaps I was actually reaping the benefit of consistent training. The other major feature of that year was that I had relatively standard working hours and trained in pretty much the same pattern across each week, with a marathon every fourth week on average. Apart from a notable exception, each month’s running total was only around 10% more or less than the average, which includes the numbers skewed by Druids and a failed attempt at the NDW100. For the first time it occurred to me that the routine, rather than the volume, could have been the key.

Then I looked at the start of 2016. That’s not just when I quit the streak and therefore the training pattern I had been used to. Work-wise, that’s also when my hours went completely topsy turvy and when I started having to miss or rearrange races. Then I started missing sessions, and trying to make up for them by going harder and longer when the opportunity arose, not knowing when I’d get the next chance. Unsurprisingly, by February I was nursing a classic runner’s knee, and in April I was forcing myself around the London Marathon course at an effort that oscillated between suicide and sloth. After that, I didn’t finish another race until the end of August. I didn’t just lose consistency, I forgot what it meant altogether.

Between then and Wendover Woods this past November my fitness slipped gradually away and I couldn’t work out why. It felt like I was trying to hold onto sand as it passed between my fingers; I’d grasp and stretch my hands out to catch as much as possible and simply lose it all the faster. Understanding the importance of consistency felt like remembering I needed to cup my hands together. So I turned to something that hasn’t really worked for me before, but might just be able to re-establish a routine. I picked up a training plan.

I’ve never got on with them in the past either because I’d not found a plan that suited my preferred effort-based philosophy, or because I’m simply not disciplined enough to follow a plan. I much prefer the “see how you feel” approach and it doesn’t tend to let me down because I never see running as a chore, as something I have to do because the plan says so. However, the P&D plan I’d tried once before, only to discover that I had started it way too late, seemed worth a try even if I had to adjust it a bit. Each day’s session is much the same as the previous week’s, with either the addition of effort or a mile or so in distance.

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Six weeks in and already my body has got used to resting on a Monday – usually the day after a long run and a day which fits my work schedule – then doing 9 or 10 miles aerobic pace on a Tuesday (i.e. run home from work), recovery or rest on Wednesday and Friday, tempo on Thursday, hard effort parkrun on Saturday (OK I do bend the rules there) and a long run on Sunday. The fact that I can remember this without looking at the plan tells me that the consistency is working. Or to put it another way, the routine. I’m in the next phase now which means upping the effort levels and the distances a bit, but I’m building on solid foundations. At least, that’s the theory.

The thing is I’m still much much slower (and heavier) than I was three years ago, but I’m feeling more in control than I have for a long time, which means I’m enjoying myself more. All because of the comfort of knowing what my week looks like. And I won’t hit all the targets of the plan itself bang on, but you know what? That’s fine. I’m still moving in the right direction, at a steady pace, nice and consistent. If that’s the best I can hope for, it’s enough.

The last couple of years have been tough, but I don’t think I’d have made this connection and started to fix my approach if I hadn’t hit rock bottom. For my signoff today, I’m going to hand over to Truth Potato:

truth potato failure

 

 

Reading and running, my two favourite things…

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You all know I love to run. You all know I love to waffle.
What you might not know is that my absolute favouritest thing – besides my budgies and my goldfish and sometimes my human – is my bookcase.

 

I’m a subscriber to the belief that a bookshelf full of unread (or about to be re-read) books is a treasure trove of potential. It’s a world of worlds waiting for me to explore, adventures that don’t get my feet wet. I can get through a book a week on public transport, two if there’s a strike, and find that the worlds of running and reading crossover best when I’m feeling in need of inspiration. Also, I’m INCREDIBLY suggestible.

 

So I thought, I wonder how many running related books I’ve read so far? Which books have had the greatest effect on my running career? Which ones would I recommend to other people?

 

The answer to that third question is: all of them. I didn’t necessarily love all of them, but what’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander (amirite girls) and the more you read the more you know what you like; if you don’t believe there’s such a thing as a junk mile, there’s no such thing as a junk page if it teaches you something about yourself. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t going to be a well-researched and insightful London Review of Books type affair where I unearth undiscovered masterpieces or out cult classics; this is simply a data dump of all the running literature I’ve ever read (and remembered).

 

So in alphabetical order, for want of any more meaningful order, here they all are. A select few either deserved comment or needed further explanation; others, not so much. If you’re looking for a way to beat those January blues, get stuck in. And if your favourite tome isn’t listed here, let me know in the comments below. I’m down to my last twenty, people!

 

Ah, this story. Combines my twin obsessions of stupidly long distance running and the years between wars. It is a truly ridiculous story, and only available in hardback that I can find. 
I mean, what can I say? I have this on my iBooks, just so I can dip in every now and again – usually to the bit about the race. This book divided opinion and being written in a journalistic, multi-narrative style it tends to take each reader on a different version of the story. To my mum, it was about barefoot running. To me, it was about how competition and pushing oneself to the limits is a fundamental form of respect. 
Don’t read this expecting to read another Born To run. Read this expecting to hear about how heroes don’t always have pecs of steel.
This book is, just like Born To Run, a book that launched a thousand ultrarunning careers. It’s easier to believe now that Dean Karnazes found himself capable of the feats he describes here but arguably it’s because, in sharing his story, he made that belief available to countless others. One hell of a character, and one hell of a classic. 
For the more serious ultrarunners out there this is an amazing pocket size coach. What Koerner doesn’t know about ultrarunning probably doesn’t need to be known, and this provides a format that can be neatly dipped in and out of depending on where you are in your training. 
Unusually for many Murakami fans, this was the first book of his that I read (as well as one of the first running-related books I read). A non-fiction account of his relationship with running and eventually triathlon, and how they support his writing work. Immediately became obsessed both with running and with him. 
I met Helen a few years ago at the end of the Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1 and bought a copy directly from her. Helen is lovely to talk to, but not being a runner herself (actually she’s a physiotherapist) her perspective is very much that of someone who can’t believe people run long distances (!) and her tone is a bit incredulous. That said this book tells the stories of many of the 100 Marathon Club members and was the first time I realised I wanted to be one of them.
James Adams – when he’s not coming up with diabolical ideas for races – is an invaluable font of knowledge and pretty f**king funny to boot. Don’t you hate him already? This book charts his attempts to get fit enough for a Transamerican run, and it’s about the most relatable book many of us will read. 
It’s quite neat that these last two sit together – two books charting the history of two very iconic races. The Comrades one in particular really made me see why that race is so important to so many people. 
Not a running book, actually; a book about walking the Camino de Santiago. But a heartwarming tale of endurance and humanity. 
You don’t need me to tell you why you should read these last two. 
A fascinating take on sports psychology and its practical application. Think of this as a training manual for your brain. 
See comment re: Lizzy and Kilian.
Zatopek, my running hero. I found this while looking for the best-rated book about his life and running career and was pleasantly surprised to discover it was written by Richard Askwith, author of the classic Feet In The Clouds. Sometimes when I need motivation on a 5k I chant “Za-to-pek, Za-to-pek” to myself. I know, wanker. 
I did not like this book at all. Imagine Dean Karnazes but more ego and less pathos. Then again, I know that a lot of people have found his story to be a huge inspiration, not just for running but for making healthier lifestyle choices. Perhaps I’m just a cynical old bat?
From the King of the ultra trail, this book favours the Eat part as much, if not more than, Run. A fascinating examination of the role nutrition plays in overall health and fitness, played out against the heartbreaking backdrop of Jurek’s youth. It’s kind of hard to laze out of a long run and eat Doritos on the sofa if you’re reading this 🙂 

 

Not yet read, but on the shelf/wish-list:

 

If magazines are more your thing and you can’t wait a whole month for your next Runners World, then you may want to consider supporting some of the brilliant indie publications that are available. It goes without saying that Ultra is top of any list both for quality of content and quality of publication – I struggle to stop sniffing the pages long enough to read them – and there’s a very warm place in my heart for Brian and Dawn at So Let’s Go Running, a magazine that did such a fantastic job of bringing runners together they ended up forming a club. Both magazines feature articles by your average Joe runners, and as much as Women’s Running/Men’s Running and Trail Running provide useful pro tips on training, nutrition and kit, there’s something about connecting with the story of another person just like me which makes me feel like a real runner. It’s something which appeals to me as I tend to skip over the matronly “here’s what you should do” articles and go straight to the personal accounts; in a similar vein, Like The Wind is a quarterly magazine full of stories by runners for runners and like Ultra, beautifully produced for a very reasonable cost. I hasten to add that these are all UK publications – sorry world – but I’d love to hear about your favourites, wherever you are!

 

Here’s where you tell me about the CRIMINAL omissions I’ve made – what would you recommend for the bookshelf?

 

(Note – these links are all for Amazon UK, but it’s just for convenience; I don’t see a penny of commission! If you find these titles in your local independent bookshop then by all means be excellent people and support them.)

Lady of leisure

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My last post was all a bit doom and gloom, wasn’t it? Not even any pictures. Sorry about that.

It spent a long time in the drafts folder, to be fair – a long time waiting for me to tie all the strands together, even though it did turn out to be like a loosely made pom pom: one weak central point and fluff scattered everywhere. But as I mentioned, it wasn’t easy to write. Time to look forward.

This one should be easier for both you and me – as I type I’m at the end of a week off from work with no particular agenda other than to rest, write and run. It came about after a gentle but firm reminder from HR to everyone who had ten or more days of annual leave: take it or lose it. As odd as it sounds taking holiday right after Christmas, the festive season isn’t exactly restful or relaxing and the first two weeks of January turned out not to be that busy, so it made perfect sense to take the time off. Andy’s already used his holiday days waiting for Thames Water to fix our sewer and we’ve neither the money nor the inclination to go abroad, so I treated myself to a staycation on my own. A whole week of wearing yoga pants and not talking to people.

The plan – because even on my day off there’s always a plan – was to use the mornings for running and the afternoons for writing and life admin; the longer game was to try and reset my routine altogether, hopefully making a few good habits that I could carry forward. Although a bit of rest (otherwise known as binge watching Fortitude on the sofa) would also be key, there wouldn’t be much point in getting used to a life of leisure only to suffer a massive culture shock on Monday. I didn’t just want to recuperate, I wanted a fresh start for a fresh new year.

So after moaning for eighteen solid months about never having time, what exactly have I been doing with my precious time off?

Running

Obviously. Getting into a training pattern of any kind is often an exercise in creating a good habit more than it is about the training itself. In my experience, a good habit can help in two key ways: normalising an activity, making its absence more notable than its presence, removes the conscious decision whether or not to do something out of my comfort zone and the risk that I’ll avoid it; and establishing a routine provides a reassuring constant which strengthens my defence against anxiety and doubt. It’s not just helpful for those who suffer with anxiety though; a good habit is crucial for succeeding at any new challenge. When it’s a one off, or if it doesn’t have a place in your schedule, there’ll always be more reasons not to do a new activity than there will be to go for it. It’s sort of why I get so into streaks, I suppose. And, to me at least, there’s something very comforting about having milestones to look out for in my day.

This week’s target on my training plan is 42 miles, mostly at a general aerobic effort or recovery pace, meaning that my effort shouldn’t ever really exceed the ability to hold a conversation. I’m used to that being somewhere in the 8:30 – 9:30 minute mile bracket but my fitness and my health are so far below where they used to be I’m barely going faster than 10:00mm, even when I bust a gut. It’s a fairly depressing place to start, but the only way to improve it is to persevere. So I found a neat little way to fit the miles in without doing circles around my house all the time; driving Andy to work and following up with a run around Richmond Park, with the added bonus of parakeets to play with. It’s been slow, but utterly joyful.

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Word of the day, biophilia, has often popped up in my discussions with trail runners about motivation: a hypothesis that being surrounded by nature and living systems can help reduce stress and promote well-being. Spending time in woodland and on open hills, soft ground underfoot and fresh air in my lungs, never fails to improve my state of mind. And another effect of going off-road is a drastic reduction in the perception of effort; I can tootle along the North Downs Way for hours and barely feel it. But when I haven’t got time to play tombola with the Southern trains timetable (“Will the 8:30 to Epsom Downs turn up? Roll the barrel and take your chances!”) there are still plenty of green spaces for me to explore in the city within reach of a tube or my bike: besides Richmond Park, Wimbledon, Tooting and Clapham Common are all regular haunts, as is the Vanguard Way.

Having done my run I’ve been getting back home mid morning full of pep, usually around the time I’d be getting into a meeting if I was at work and resigning myself to no achievements. That pep has been put to good use giving the house a bit of a spruce – cleaning is loads easier when you don’t leave it for weeks at a time – which means a much nicer space to work in. Having done that I’ve been trying to get in at least 20 or 30 minutes of yoga, again something I’ve neglected horribly. Once I’ve unfolded myself out of “corkscrew” and popped my joints back in place the rest of the morning is reserved for correspondence (that sounds more romantic and Jane Austen-y than “checking emails”) or any other odd errands.

Resting

There needs to be some rest in there, I am a lady of leisure after all. I got through both series of Fortitude in four days – now of course anxiety dreams are replaced by nightmares about rabid polar bears – while balancing lunch on my belly. It’s Friday as I write this, and time for a change of mood, so I’m watching Dinnerladies from the start. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how brilliant Dinnerladies was. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how brilliant Victoria Wood was. Victoria Wood taught me about humanity and about comedy, which are always the same thing, and had a massive influence on my sense of humour (when I have one). It seems appropriate to take inspiration from her when retraining myself to be human.

Writing

Then from three o’clock onwards I’ve been taking my laptop and a cup of coffee down to the summer house to write. I was lucky enough to get on the shortlist of Penguin’s WriteNow project, a scheme offering mentorship to unpublished authors from under-represented backgrounds, but my third of a novel with no discernible narrative written in a tense that made the editor wince didn’t make the final ten, surprisingly. However the WriteNow team gave us so much valuable support and advice that I’ve decided to finish the damn thing and try my luck the old fashioned way. I’m still not changing the tense though.

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The novel is a folly for which the optimistically named “summer house” is a perfect setting. The summer house is really just a cabin at the bottom of the garden which seemed to have been used for storing catkins and spiderwebs when we first moved in, but we’ve since furnished it as a bedsit for when my brother stays and now it’s basically the biggest and nicest room in the house. My aim was to try and get around 1000 words down a day, and the cabin is just far enough away from the house that the wi-fi is useless without a booster, which is handy for avoiding distractions. With the help of a new carpet and insulation, an electric heater and a hand knitted draught excluder, it’s actually super cosy down there now. In fact it’s almost as well equipped as Roald Dahl’s hut – all I’m missing is the Thermos flask. I manage a couple of hours without fresh coffee then it’s suppertime.

Recharging

As we do every January Andy and I have committed to cut down on stodge and make healthier suppers – not that we’re ready meal addicts, but anything requiring more imagination than a diced onion doesn’t get a look in on worknights. Since I’ve been home this week we’ve treated ourselves to square meals that have multiple vegetables and more than one colour in them, and again I find myself surprised (perhaps naively) at the effect proper food can have on mood. I know it’s pretty obvious, but it’s hard to be hangry when you’ve had your five a day. As with all these good habits, it tends to feed itself – you just have to get going in the first place. Or rather, you have to want to get it going. That, I think, is the biggest shift for me – after just one week of R&R I’ve started to care enough about my body to want to feed it decent things, not just to pay lip service to better living.

So I have to admit our HR department were on to something by insisting that people actually take their annual leave. This is usually where someone throws around the term “work-life balance” but as someone whose work patterns have traditionally been of the feast or famine model I’ve never been able to define what that means at all, let alone for me. Now I know what it doesn’t mean: pushing through fourteen months without a proper break, piling exhaustion upon sleep deficit, burning out and going mad. All feast and no famine. I could keep up that kind of pressure in my previous job because I knew there would be fallow months, but it’s taken me some time to adjust to this new, consistently busy schedule, one which requires me to take responsibility for my own health and rest even when we’re busy. It’s going to take time for me not to feel guilty about that.

Although I can’t keep up this lady of leisure act beyond Sunday it’s been just enough to taste what a properly structured life could look like. Work shouldn’t stop me from fitting in an hour of running and an hour of writing a day, or allow for the occasional lazy evening doing nothing of worth except rest – and to be fair it doesn’t, I do. In exposing myself to a routine I’d like to live by, in defining that for myself, I’ve given myself something to look forward to. I haven’t looked forward to anything for over a year now – I’ve been too tired to appreciate it or too afraid of making myself that vulnerable.

If you find yourself in this position, try to find time to take stock – OK you might not have a whole week going spare, but even one day or an hour every morning for a week is better than putting off your recovery over and over until it’s too late. It’s a bit like cleaning your house: if you do twenty minutes every day nothing gets too far out of hand. If you ignore it for months, you’re eventually going to have to call in the professionals.

Crazy talk

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I’m going to talk about mental health. It’s not an easy thing to talk about; partly because of the stigma, although that tide is on the way out. Mostly because, for many people, it can be hard to define. Good or bad, mental health is a vague, shapeless thing, often recognisable only in the negative spaces. I think you know when something’s wrong but do you know when something’s right? Do you know how to articulate what’s wrong?

I found myself in this position recently, having finally decided to talk to our company’s welfare counsellor. It took a while to build up the courage and make the appointment – what finally made the decision for me was the need to do something about my mental health not for me, but for the effect it is having on my partner and my friends. I can be as self-indulgent and -destructive as I please, but I have no right to take anyone else down with me. So she asked me what I wanted to talk about, and I said that I was struggling. I couldn’t think of another, less euphemistic way to describe it than that. Just that I was struggling, and I knew that the way I respond to things wasn’t normal, and I needed to do something about it.

I described being so stressed that I vacillated between insomnia and fatigue; actually, tiredness so profound it was paralysing. I described getting home from work one day and slumping to the floor in front of the sofa, unable to get up on to it to be more comfortable, unable to move at all, frozen there until Andy came home an hour later and helped me up. I described being in chronic pain quite a lot of the time for no specific reason and in no specific area, alleviated only by a good long run. I said that I suffered panic attacks. She stopped me there.

“What do you mean by panic attacks?”

As soon as I said it I realised it was a daft thing to say. I had grasped for a phrase to explain what I normally – again, euphemistically – call ‘episodes’, where terror grips my heart for no apparent reason and I burst into hysterics, hyperventilate, become numb, become paralysed, all at once. But of course it’s not panic and it isn’t an attack. I hate that phrase anyway – it infers that a panic attack is something that happens to you: a passive activity thrust upon you, an external influence. It isn’t, of course. It comes from within, it is created in my head and there is an unconscious decision to unleash it. It is, perhaps more appropriately, a stress response, and I am – to some extent – responsible for it.

If what I’ve described there is the tip of the dagger, then what comes next is the wound, which bleeds out if left unchecked. The emotional effort of an “episode” has a very physiological effect on me, quite similar to the effort of a marathon but without the endorphins. Or the sense of achievement. Or the permission to eat tons of cake. The most noticeable effect is that it wears me out, which is probably my body forcing me to rest by simply rendering me immobile for a day or two, but the flipside is that if I have to stay awake for any reason (you know, like gainful employment) I end up behaving like an overtired toddler at a New Year’s Eve party. Only now am I waking up naturally after less than ten hours of sleep; for the best part of 2017 I’ve been going to bed before half 8 (when I am able), and either being wrenched awake at half 7 the following morning feeling like the living dead, or staying awake until the small hours panicking about utter bollocks and seeing a liquid three hours of tearful, fearful sleep. I don’t think either of those make me a fun person to work with.

In fact I have a little sleep app which I set when I go to bed, which measures REM cycles and quality of sleep and on which I record notes relating to my day, such as whether I drank tea, coffee or alcohol, whether I worked out, whether it was a stressful day. Using that information it can tell me how those parameters affect my sleeping habits; it is not surprising that a stressful day generally correlates with poor quality sleep but working out and a solid 8 hours tends to give a higher score. It did, however, turn out to be a surprise one day when I noticed that for the first time since starting to use the app regularly I didn’t tick the box for “drank coffee”. I went one day without coffee. In over two years. Which makes the coffee parameter somewhat irrelevant and the whole enterprise less than scientific.

I say “less than scientific”: it’s just an iPhone app, a product designed to meet the current trend for simulated empiricism (among other things), so that people have the illusion of control over their lives because a fitness or lifestyle or health app is helping them track their every move. Scientifically speaking this kind of data analysis is at best valueless and irrelevant; or at least, it’s about as relevant as those Facebook quizzes that list your character attributes (they’re never really negative are they?) based on the third letter of your name or the date you were born. My point is that this very unscientific thing, this cynical tool of consumerist juzsh, has become a crutch in my daily life simply because I’m afraid of losing control, and this app makes me feel as though I have it. Copy and paste for MyFitnessPal.

Which brings me to what I believe is the contributing factor to these episodes: a fear of loss of control. My family, god love them, will tell you this is nothing new; I’ve been called a control freak many times before and not usually in the context of a compliment. The mistake I think they make – perhaps I should stop putting words in their mouths if I don’t want to be called a control freak – is that they think what I desire is control over everything, when in truth all I need is control over a fraction of myself. Control over everything? I’m not that ambitious. And I don’t like other people enough to care about controlling them. I just want to feel the tips of my own fingers.

Because that’s literally where every episode takes me. To the feeling that every molecule in my body becomes loose and starts to float away, that the bonds between them disintegrate and I become nothing. This is a waking nightmare I have suffered almost all my life, or at least since I was about ten years old; it’s also a recurring dream that plagues the few hours I do sleep at the height of my anxiety episodes. It can approach by degrees, perhaps at a professional or social occasion that I’m not entirely comfortable with, where I try to hold back the tide of anxiety for as long as possible and jump on a train home when I’m about to succumb; or it can hit me like a tsunami, where I’m coping one minute and the next I’m dissociating first from my surroundings, then from my peripheral senses, almost from my sense of self altogether: stranded. When I talk about losing control, I’m not talking about frustration that other people won’t bend to my will. I’m literally talking about losing the link between my physical body and my sense of self.

At one point or another this has manifested itself in the form of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia (it’s possible, look it up), as an eating disorder, as compulsions, and not at all. The common factor to all these self-prescribed treatments is the same thing: a misguided belief that activity X equals outcome Y, and I will regain control of all my molecules. But that fear of disintegration still tortures me. If I stand on a bridge I panic that my belongings will jump out of my pockets into the water, or that I’ll fall in even if I’m nowhere near the edge. If I drop something on the floor, I briefly imagine that it will fall into a black hole and be gone forever. If I stand still for long enough, I feel as though I will turn to dust.

This is what I wanted to tell the counsellor, and didn’t. I said a lot of things but I couldn’t articulate this. Six months on, and only now have I got the building blocks of the language I need to describe it to you – even then these words are to actual building blocks what Lego is to bricks and mortar.

It was far from a waste of time though – those two short sessions were enough to start the process of recovery, even if all they did was make me confront and find a way to define the immediate problem. We discussed the importance of running to my mental health, acknowledging that that one very simple treatment has never failed to alleviate my symptoms and working out how to make the most of it. I half expected her to tell me that actually there is no provable link between exercise and good mental health and that it’s all a placebo sold by Runner’s World – but then I thought, what does it matter if it is? As long as it works, and the worst side effects are boring your friends and never having clean hair, then I’ll take a placebo over losing hope that I’ll ever feel human again. It’s either that or knitting.

To anyone reading this who can relate to what I’ve written, or who recognises even a scrap of themselves in the chaotic fragments of my story, I say this: I know how lucky I am to have this resource available, and how stupid I am for not taking advantage of it sooner. Many people don’t have the luxury of a welfare counsellor at work or even know if they come on the NHS. If you have such a resource, use it. Not because a counsellor will fix you like a plaster on a papercut, but because they will start to teach you how to heal yourself. They might sow the seeds of recovery, or show you how to sow the seeds, or they might even start by explaining to you what seeds are.

If you don’t have access to a counsellor directly, be reassured that help is closer than you think. The Mind website is a great source of information on mental health, as are SANE and Rethink. And be reassured that mental ill-health is commoner than you think too, especially in this age of enlightenment. With the privilege of more and more instant access information comes the responsibility to evaluate it all, at an increasingly faster pace and with less and less tolerance for error. It’s like working on a factory assembly line, where the machine churns out parts at the same pace for years and years, and all the line workers have to do is put them together. Suddenly one day the machine doubles in speed and your boss docks your pay for every incorrect assembly. The effort of trying to keep up compounded by the fear of failure is a disaster waiting to happen, and yet we have to treat this situation as if it’s perfectly normal. Eventually, it is normal. But normal still isn’t the same as right.

If me and my molecules have been of any help to you then maybe it’s a step towards us all keeping up with the machine. And if they haven’t, then please know that you’ve been invaluable to me.

Druids Challenge 2017 – the other side of the aid station

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It’s my favourite event of the year. Well, no – Eurovision is my favourite of all events, but Druids is top as far as races go. It’s not even the running bit that makes it, although the Ridgeway trail traces my heart like my own veins; it’s the camping overnight in school halls, eating Anna’s mum’s homemade cake, drinking endless cups of instant coffee and sleeping on an army cot in the frozen depths of November that I can’t wait for. File it in the Venn diagram of “things that make me feel like a kid”/”things only trail runners do”/”happy things”.

I ran it in 2015 and 2016, but had to hold off this year due to the fourth Centurion Grand Slam, the Wendover Woods 50, being only two weeks later. Honestly I’m not sure what upset me more: missing Druids or missing out on the suicide challenge of doing both, just for lols. Nonetheless, paranoid that the slightest intervention would scupper my chances of finishing the grand slam (spoiler alert) I opted to wrap myself in cotton wool, and just volunteer instead. Easy peasy.

The race covers almost the entire Ridgeway National Trail over three days: 29 miles on Friday, 27 on Saturday and 28 on Sunday. I couldn’t get the time off on Friday for the first leg from Ivinghoe Beacon to the school at Watlington so I missed out on the first night’s camping as well; on the other hand it had been a big week at work and a solid night’s sleep in my own damn bed was more of a novelty than camping, so I banked it. Car packed, I drove up to my first post at checkpoint two at the crack of dawn on Saturday, ready for action.

Being a production manager by trade, I had printed out every last scrap of information I could find, calculated how long it would take me to get to the checkpoint, gave myself a good margin of error and then set off slightly earlier than that. The instructions told me I was needed at the checkpoint an hour in advance of the runner expected to pass first, and that was half past nine, so there I was, at 08:27 (including a detour for a coffee and a loo stop so as not to seem too eager). And I waited.

And I waited.

I could be relatively certain that I was in the right place – I mean it’s probably the most memorable checkpoint in the whole three days – and my satnav wasn’t disagreeing. But the checkpoint chief, Edward, was nowhere to be seen. Tussling with the fear of posting a stupid question on the group Whatsapp I tried sending messages to both Edward and to Rich the volunteer coordinator, with no luck and no signal. By half past nine I was vacillating between panic that a hundred hungry runners were about to overwhelm me and certainty that it must be me that was wrong; after all, there were at least three other people that were meant to be there and still weren’t. Just as I was about to get my trail shoes on and start running backwards along the route, wondering if the checkpoint had moved, a car drove down the muddy lane to the water’s edge that obviously had nothing to do with fishermen or dog walking.

Out of Edward’s modest estate car a whole checkpoint unfolded – I mean this is Mary Poppin’s carpet bag territory. Two fold out tables, four barrels full of water, eight or nine boxes of food and supplies (including the all-important hand sanitiser), the timing kits, the ubiquitous XNRG feather banner and various other bits of signage. Joined by fellow volunteer Laura and her son we set up as quickly as possible and started doing the clock arithmetic for when we expected the first person to pass, proving once and for all that my calculations were way out. I offered to tick off race numbers and make sure all the runners checked their wristbands against the timer, thinking at least I couldn’t get that wrong.

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As is customary for day 2 of the Druids, especially the second stretch along the Thames, it was soggy. I tried to wipe my phone screen on my trousers to dry it off enough to use, and all that happened was that my phone screen got a different kind of wet on it. My numbers sheet actually got soaked while we were setting up and had to be laid across the car’s heating vents to dry off before we even got started; by the time we were halfway through the field I was marking fat splodges on papier mache with a mashed felt tip, literally counting down the chart to get the right number. It was like playing bingo in wet clay.

Considering the job involved standing outside in the rain without shelter for a number of hours (including the bonus ones I awarded myself) the time passed surprisingly quickly. Having to concentrate on the path and catch the runners before they took off up the road was definitely harder than being the runner concentrating on the path, something I know from previous experience on that course. I’ve given up on enough of my own races to know how annoying it is to let yourself down, but the thought of letting down another runner was really nerve-wracking. Meanwhile, a lone fisherman who was surprised to find us pitched up on the bank before him settled in at the rivers edge with his wolf (he claimed it was a dog) and patiently waited for the fish that our neon coloured, mud-thumping, giggling and panting runners were presumably scaring away. We learned an awful lot about riverside politics between rowers and kayakers, longboaters and swimmers, like a live-action version of The Wind In The Willows.

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The runners came through in various states of undress and humour; most notably a first time ultrarunner who came in wearing just one shoe, having lost the other in the mud (which wasn’t surprising as they turned out to be three sizes too small for him in the first place); the man who found a neat solution to our lack of sandwiches (two jaffa cakes with a slice of cheddar in the middle); and Marie-Claude, a lady who stumbled into the aid station in a bin bag and floods of tears, having optimistically followed the weather forecast and not the basic tenet of Druids which is that day two is always wet. Bless her, she was miserable. Her waterproofs were, helpfully, in her bag back at base. Her ankles were weighed down with a pair of hand knitted leg warmers, by now waterlogged and hefty with mud, and she was pining for her sturdy walking boots. She sobbed uncontrollably as we helped her into a chair and out of the leg warmers, and Edward managed to produce both hot water and a hot chocolate sachet from nowhere. It seemed like she was destined to pull out.

Those of you that know XNRG’s multi-day challenges probably know regular face Elaine, often patiently hiking each leg in twice the time of the frontrunners and always with a smile and good humour. We knew to look out for her as the last person expected through, making Marie-Claude the second from last according to the scraps of my sheet. After a last minute bit of foot dressing by Dr Laura and the lend of a waterproof jacket, it seemed that all that Marie was short of was the will to carry on – she was in perfectly good health otherwise. We managed to convince her that if she kept going she would eventually have company from Elaine, and since there were no cut-offs she had nothing but time. To her credit as soon as she was up on her feet she got straight on with it – a lesson in the power of appropriate kit and a bit of positive thinking. We all sympathised with her low moment, but we all know those moments pass much faster than the disappointment of a DNF. Not long afterward came Elaine, as smiling and beatific as ever. We had a bit of a chat with her as she loaded up on jaffa cakes and some of Laura’s homemade flapjacks, and off went the last of our intrepid explorers.

My next shift was back at the school manning the tea and cake stand. Yeah I know, what a hardship. Handing out tea and cake to people 56 miles in to the Ridgeway is a very gratifying job anyway – I mean, nobody’s exactly turning their nose up at free cake – but to ultra geeks like me it’s also a front row seat to the best show on earth, watching the likes of Edwina Sutton and Justin Montague do what they do best and barely break sweat in the process. And because I’m my mother’s daughter I had great fun buzzing around like a busybody and forcing tea into chilly hands.

And then the hard work began.

While Susie Chan and Rory Coleman delivered their after-supper presentations, we had to clear the canteen and set up for breakfast the following morning, as well as keep the hot drinks and cake flowing and the jerrycans full of water. I sort of knew, from previous experience, that the job would involve making sure these vital things were available as long as everyone was awake, but I hadn’t quite appreciated just how much 300 runners and walkers could get through – I don’t think I stopped moving until past 11pm, an hour after lights out. Straight into event mode, I fell into my cot bed feeling wonderfully weary and stared at the ceiling for five hours, too buzzed to sleep.

My alarm went off at half 5 just as I’d started to drift off, and by the time I got to the canteen the early risers on the first wave were already tucking in. The walkers were due to start at 7am but would need to be on the shuttle bus by half 6 in order to be taken to the restart point, on the exposed top of East Hendred Down. The well-oiled machine that is XNRG splits up the runners into groups according to their finishing times from day 2, which is crucial in making sure that there are enough seats on the shuttle buses to get everyone to the top – and naturally, everyone bargains to go in the middle group. Once again I saw the wider context of my selfish runner’s needs; if 5 percent of the field ask to be the “one change” to the grouping, they’d need to hire a whole extra bus to accommodate. Considering that I’ve always felt very well looked after at XNRG’s races, I saw firsthand how it’s not abundance of resources but Anna and Neil’s military precision that fulfils our every need; at the same time, it’s clear to see how quickly what profits they do turn could be swallowed up for the want of a bit of forward planning.

By the time we’d seen all three groups breakfasted and on the buses – not to mention their luggage – I was already jumping into the car for my next job: manning station 2 at Hinton Parva, this time under the guidance of checkpoint chief Wendi. Even more wobbly than the soggy ground we set up on on Saturday, this time the table was on a thirty degree slope and the Haribo were in even more danger of flying away than of being snaffled. Following the classic Druid’s schedule, day 3 was a clear, crisp day, dry and bright but absolutely fucking freezing. FREEZING. So, almost as good weather to be standing out in for hours as incessant rain.

God it was fun though. Wendi, a stalwart of XNRG races, is like your friend’s hilarious mum who you sort of wish was your mum. We were messing around so much I only just got the signage and timing pad set up in time for the first runner through, and as the checkpoint is at the bottom of a long downward slope they were barrelling past us – I had to move up the hill to allow for reaction time, they were that fast. As was to be expected the field was more stretched out than yesterday, and by the time we got halfway through my toes (even in their two pairs of socks and thick boots) were already blocks of ice, and my writing basic caveman smudges through my heavy duty gloves.

There was an addition to the timing system this year: a tracker held by the runner at the back of the field which, in the absence of cutoffs, allowed us to see roughly how long we should stay open, avoiding the risk of closing up too early or hanging around for ages unnecessarily. It’s a fairly low tech system which relies on the last runner handing it to whomever they overtake; on the other hand, the tracker had been in the reliable hands of Elaine for days 1 and 2 so we weren’t too worried about losing it. In fact, we learned over the wireless (Whatsapp) that Elaine had company for the day: Marie-Claude, the girl who looked like she wasn’t going to drop out so much as drop dead the day before, had swapped her trail shoes for her hiking boots and every layer of clothing she had, and joined Elaine to enjoy the rest of the Ridgeway at a leisurely pace.

The third day had really started to take its toll on people, and there were at least three dropouts at our station – injured knees and swollen feet scattered around the trail like the aftermath of a battlefield. As I ticked off each race number, either as they passed or were reported on Whatsapp as a dropout from checkpoint one, my runner bingo card became a tally of the most weary, pained and battered people I’d ever seen. Eventually we were down to a group of four colleagues who were hiking together, who passed through smiling as benignly as if they were on a Sunday stroll – actually I almost mistook them for dogwalkers, they were so laid back – and shortly afterwards, the cheerful grins of Marie-Claude and Elaine. I’ve often commented on Elaine’s particular brand of good-natured, matronly stamina, but together they were giggling like schoolgirls who’d snuck away from double Physics. In fact, they were having so much fun that their pace had increased fairly drastically since the first leg – drastically enough that their second wind later turned out to be enough to overtake the Sunday strollers. That’s the final ingredient in a successful ultramarathon – a pinch of childish fun. Because how else do you forget about the lows?

Having seen them safely off we packed up, and I drove back to base to clock my final shift of the weekend: being the Mrs Overall of HQ once again. I feel like I might have been given a slightly charmed rota since all I seemed to do was chat to runners and serve them coffee; but I reflected later than perhaps my impression of volunteering at a race involved a lot more hardship than I thought it would. Don’t get me wrong, it was still ten times tougher than running the bloody thing – and if I’ve heard a single piece of advice about ultras I feel qualified to pass on it’s that you should always smile at the checkpoint volunteers – but it was worth it to appreciate just how much effort goes into this very very complex operation designed to give a small bunch of nutters a good time. And it’s the tip of the iceberg – I turned up on the day and followed a rota and did what I was told. My professional experience tells me that months of preparation and negotiation went into getting the race permit and selling the places, securing the stopover venues, working out and then booking the logistics, sorting out the food and drink supplies, assembling and organising the volunteer team, reorganising them when people pulled out at late notice – never mind the details.

Only when I started for home, very nearly suppertime and all I’d eaten was thieved Haribo and cake, did I start to dive off the crest of adrenalin I’d been surfing all weekend. My lack of fitness and training sent me into a downward spiral at the beginning of this year that became so bad I couldn’t even bear to look at my running club’s social media posts, I was in such a grimy well of self pity. The idea of volunteering to keep in touch when you can’t run always seemed like a good one on paper, but I just couldn’t bear watching other people do the things I wanted to be doing; like watching the ex that broke your heart in a shiny new relationship. Druids was the one event that I felt would be worse to miss altogether than to be involved with in some way, and I’m so glad I got stuck in. It might not have been an entirely altruistic gesture, offering to volunteer just to cheer myself up, but I hope at least it was a mutually beneficial act. Like sharing a smile at the aid station, a good deed – however selfish the motive – cannot help but spread goodwill.

Still though… my Pilgrim’s entry went in the very next day. I’m gonna earn my cake this time.